January 6, 2010

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’ (2009)


Directors: Serge Bromberg/Ruxandra Medrea

102 min

Henri-Georges Clouzot was without doubt one of the finest film makers France has produced. He has made at least three undisputable masterpieces; ‘Le Corbeau’ (1943 – loathed by both the Vichy government and the French resistance), ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) and ‘Diabolique’ (1955). In the following years, with Clouzot still at the height of his creative powers, the dynamics of film making changed in France as the older guard were usurped and replaced by the Nouvelle Vague generation. Perhaps in response to this, though Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) is often cited as an inspiration, Clouzot embarked upon his most ambitious film to date, ‘Inferno’.

Bromberg and Medrea’s documentary is the definitive account of this unfinished film. They began by working with the 15 hours of scenes that had been found and began to piece together what Clouzot’s vision of the film might have been. Where there were gaps in what was filmed from what was in the script, they used actors to play the parts. In addition to this, they interviewed remaining key personnel from the film to try to obtain a glimpse of how ‘Inferno’ developed as a project, how it began to be filmed and ultimately, how it was aborted, effectively ending Clouzot’s directorial career in the process.

Whilst the acting and interviews are insightful enough, what really fascinates us most is the surviving footage from the abandoned film. Clouzot proposed a radical, bold new approach to film making, with his use of colour, lighting and sound design promising much in the means of cinematic innovation. Clouzot was working with an unlimited budget, with multiple crews and more than 150 technicians, and in the grand tradition of these things, anything that could go wrong did! Clouzot fell out with his lead actor, Serge Regianni, who walked off the set. Scenes were rewritten and refilmed on the spot, with the director insisting on numerous takes unnecessary, whilst Clouzot himself later had a heart attack that stalled the project forever. What survives though gives every impression that ‘Inferno’ could have been yet another Clouzot masterpiece. The basic premise; of a husband’s jealousy of his wife, whom he suspects of having an affair, is typical of Clouzot’s misanthropic world view, but it’s how he proposed to depict this that’s truly spellbinding. The focus seemed to be dealing with the husband’s psychological state. The shift between black and white and colour would define his descent from ‘normalcy’ to delusional. Distorted sound effects, such as speech being altered, would further reflect this. Certainly more ambitious than what Clouzot had arguably attempted in his previous films, it’s this ambition that ultimately would be the film’s downfall.

This screening was shown as part of a double bill with ‘Diabolique’, probably considered the director’s greatest film, with good reason. It’s one of the great psychological thrillers; chilling from start to finish. As grim in its depiction of human nature as any of his films, it suggests a world where the living are dead and the dead return to life. The final sequence is as great as anything committed to celluloid and the impact upon Hitchcock is clear, from the warning about the revealing the ending that was used in ‘Psycho’ (1960) to the use of the film’s writers for ‘Vertigo’ (1958)


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